Godfrey Kneller’s Portrait of Matthew Prior: a Mystery Solved

Until the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of museums and art galleries, the exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion was showing at Tate Britain in London. Trinity College lent two of the carvings by Grinling Gibbons from the Wren Library to this exhibition. You can read more about all the Wren carvings in an earlier blog.

A highlight of the show was another item lent by the College: a portrait of Matthew Prior by Godfrey Kneller. A review in The Observer said that this painting “rises at every level to meet singular intelligence of this living presence. It is by far the best work in the show.”

Matthew Prior by Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Matthew Prior (1664-1721), a poet and diplomat, was a scholarship student not at Trinity but at neighbouring St John’s College in Cambridge, during which time he began writing poetry. One of his earliest compositions – ‘The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d’ (1787) – was a parody of a work by John Dryden written with his friend Charles Montague (later the earl of Halifax). In 1688 he became a Fellow at St John’s but while still composing poetry he began looking for opportunities to become involved in political spheres.

In 1690 he was appointed as secretary to the British Ambassador to The Hague. He combined this demanding role with writing some of his best-known poems during this period including  ‘An English Ballad, on the Taking of Namur by the King of Great Britain, 1695’ and ‘Written in the Year 1696’. His later career found him in Paris and London (including a brief spell as MP for East Grinstead). In 1709 he published ‘Poems on several occasions’ the first of two collections of his own poems.

In 1711 Prior travelled incognito to France to begin negotiations which eventually resulted in the Treaty of Utrecht. The Treaty was finally signed in April 1713 bringing to an end the War of the Spanish Succession between England, Holland, Portugal, Prussia, Savoy, and France. On his return to London Prior was questioned about alleged corruption and treason during the negotiations and he was kept under house arrest for a year. His diplomatic skills protected his friends and colleagues and led to his own release in June 1716. Poems written during his house arrest included ‘Alma, or, The Progress of the Mind’.

A subscription edition of ‘Poems on several occasions’ brought him considerable wealth in his later years. Having experienced ill health for much of his life, Prior died at Wimpole in 1721. He was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The Wren Library has a fine collection of Prior’s publications in the Rothschild collection, but it remains anomalous that this fine portrait is owned by the College when he had no direct connection with Trinity. Until very recently the reasons for this have remained shrouded in mystery, since the painting was presented to the College in 1908 on strict condition that the gift remained anonymous.

Details of the donation have now come to light in a series of hitherto unknown letters written by M. R. James, who was director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge at the time, to the donor, whose identity can now be confirmed as being Charles Fairfax Murray (1849–1919).

Excerpt from the letter from M R James to Charles Fairfax Murray

Murray was deeply involved in pre-Raphaelite circles, working with Ruskin, Burne-Jones and Morris among others, but combined his work as an artist with dealing in art sales, and became a major benefactor to several galleries and museums including the Fitzwilliam, which received from him Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia as well as number of Gainsboroughs and Constables. In February 1908 Murray had asked James to enquire of the Master of Trinity whether the College would agree to be given Kneller’s portrait of Matthew Prior, to hang in the Combination Room. James replied on 23 February that he had written to ask, and in a letter dated 28 February he outlined the problem which had by then emerged:

And now I have a delicate question to ask. I sent the beautiful Prior picture to Trinity, & their admiration of it is as great as you could wish. But – & here is the difficulty – was it our wicked friend Arthur Benson who suggested to you that the picture ought to be at Trinity because Prior was a Trinity man? Well, do you know, he wasn’t a Trinity man? It is true that Halifax his great friend was at Trinity & they saw a great deal of each other at Cambridge: but, in fact, Prior was at John’s (where they have a good portrait of him, bequeathed by himself).

I ought to have known that he was not at Trinity: but I’m afraid I took it for granted that Arthur Benson was right in his facts.

Well, now, the Trinity people are very anxious that there should be no misapprehension connected with your generous proposal, & that the facts about Prior should be brought to your notice: in order, that you should have the opportunity of reconsidering the matter, if such should be your will. But you must not doubt of their very great gratitude for the kind thought which you have had for them; and should you decide to let the matter stand as it is, they will – I have not the least doubt – gratefully accept this picture and hang it where you desire that it should be hung.

On the other hand (and you must forgive the Museum Director who writes these lines) if you think differently as to the destination of the picture after what I have told you, you know how welcome Prior would be in the Fitzwilliam.

The delicate situation was duly resolved, Murray magnanimously agreeing to give the picture despite the earlier confusion, and the strict anonymity of the donation was retained until the appearance of these letters a few months ago. Murray’s one stipulation was that the painting should hang “anywhere except in the Hall”.

The letters, which had been in the collection of the noted book historian Anthony Hobson and which also contain other information about James’s purchases at auctions, will now be available to readers in the Wren Library under the reference Add.ms.a.606.




One thought on “Godfrey Kneller’s Portrait of Matthew Prior: a Mystery Solved

  1. This is a fascinating solution of the mystery of Kneller’s Portrait of Matthew Prior, and why it hangs in Trinity.
    Let’s have more articles that show the Trinity portraits, and tell the stories that lie behind the paintings, please.

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